Victor and Emily set out on their quest...
"Hello, my dear," Elder Gutknecht said to Emily as the pair came into his study. "I see that you've found Victor."
He turned to Victor. "Well, young man, did you find Miss Everglot?"
The look that passed across Victor's face answered his question.
"I'm sorry, Victor. Truly I am. But she would not have been happy to return to the Land of the Living."
"That's what everybody's been telling me," said Victor. "I still find that hard to believe."
The Elder changed the subject. "Victor, you need to make a decision about that stone of yours. And you need to make it quickly."
"Why the hurry?" Victor asked.
"What color was that stone when you first got it?" the Elder asked.
"Pink or maybe pinkish-red," Victor answered. "Why?"
"Take a look at it now."
Victor did. "What? But it's red now." He looked up. "How can that be?"
"My boy, the color of the Stone is determined by its health. When it is at full strength it's clear like a diamond. As it loses power it will redden and the deeper the color the weaker the Stone has become. And in the short period of time that you've had the Stone it has weakened noticeably."
"What happens when it runs out completely?" Victor asked.
Elder Gutknecht shook his head. "You won't want to know. For if it does the demon will break free and a horror will be unleashed upon this world, and upon yours - a holocaust like nothing ever seen by the living - or the dead."
"So the Stone must find new keepers before that happens?" Victor asked.
The Elder nodded his head. "And the time is shorter than you know. When the Stone turns black, then it will be possible for externally applied black magic to set the demon free before its time."
"What has to be done?" Emily asked.
Elder Gutknecht paused. "A couple in love - one living and one dead - must take this Stone to the Binding Place where it was forged and say the proper vows to become anointed as the newest Holders of the Stone."
"Oh," Victor said. "And they must be a couple?"
The Elder nodded. "The love between a reunited pair is what gives the Stone its power."
"That's what I thought," Victor said quietly, and he turned towards Emily. "So, if Victoria can't come back with me, I'd have to find somebody else to bring back. And to love... "
Emily bit her lip and tried hard not to look too eager. She almost succeeded.
"Emily," Victor smiled gently. "Would you be willing to return to the Land of the Living with me? To live with me and be my wife there?"
The girl put a hand to her mouth and tears welled up in her eyes. "Oh, Victor ... yes ... YES!" Then she rushed forward and embraced him.
The Elder waited for the excitement to die down and then he addressed the happy couple. "Congratulations, children. I know that you'll be very happy together and I wish you all the best. But I'm afraid that you'll need to leave now - time is getting short and you have a difficult journey ahead of you."
"There's one more thing," he added. "This concerns you, Victor."
"What is it, Elder Gutknecht?" he asked.
There is a price to paid by the living mate for resurrecting the dead," the Elder answered. "A very high price - one that not every one is willing to pay. Be truly sure that you love Emily before you take her back to your world."
"What kind of price are you talking about?" Victor asked.
"I can't tell you, exactly," the Elder said. "Just be sure of your intentions."
"I've never been surer," Victor said, taking Emily's hand and smiling again at her.
"Then go," the Elder said. "And good luck to you both..."
"Are you sure that you understand the map?" Emily asked Victor as he studied the sheet of paper that the Elder had given them.
"I think so," he answered. "And if not, I've still got you to ask directions for me."
"What a typical man," she remarked. "I can just hear Miss Plum now..."
He grinned back at her and they fell into a comfortable walking pace.
"Emily?" he asked at length.
"That night - that night when you turned into butterflies and flew away - I thought that you'd left for good and that I was never going to see you again. What happened?"
She sighed. "You know, Victor, I thought the same thing. You'd set me free, and I was ready to cross over that night. And then..."
"And then ... what?" he asked.
"Something held me back," she continued. "Somebody's face came into my mind and I'm sure that I heard him call out my name."
"Your father?" Victor asked.
Emily stopped, turned, and stared at him in wide-eyed surprise. "Why ... yes. How did you know?"
"A lucky guess," he said. "You know, you and I - we've got a lot to talk about - a lot has happened in three years."
"But, my father?"
"Yes, your father," Victor said. "I've gotten to know him since I saw you last. Much like with you and Victoria, we've sort of become 'best friends' ourselves."
"Oh, how is he?" she asked, wringing her hands. "I wish I knew."
"Not well, I'm afraid," he answered. "Walter's been pining for you ever since you died - he blames himself for what happened to you and he's been punishing himself ever since."
"That's crazy," she said. "What happened to me was my own doing, and mine alone. He couldn't have changed that - if anything, he tried to talk me out of seeing that man."
"Well, parents can be like that, sometimes. But he does miss you, and he spends his days either at your grave or at the beach staring out at the sea."
Emily nodded. "I was on my way, like I was telling you, and then I realized that, although I was free, there was still some unfinished business between Daddy and I. So I decided to wait for him and when his time came..."
"You'd escort him over to the other side," Victor suggested.
She nodded. "The least that I could do was to wait for him so that the first face he saw in the Land of the Dead would have been mine."
"You're a good daughter."
Emily laughed, a note of bitterness creeping into her voice. "If I really was a good daughter, I'd have listened to him - and I'd be alive today..."
"Now, who's being crazy?" Victor said gently. "It was your decision to make, Emily. Even if it turned out to be wrong..."
"I guess..." she mumbled.
They walked awhile in silence and then Emily spoke again. "You said that you and my father are friends now."
He nodded. "He's talked a lot about you - you're one of our favorite topics."
"Mostly good, I hope," she quipped.
"All good," he replied. "He still loves and misses you, you know. Even after all these years."
"He's a good man," Victor continued. "I like to spend time with him, and he's very entertaining. His stories..."
Emily laughed. "I know all about his stories," she said. "Who do you think had to put up with listening to them?"
Then Emily sighed again and she looked off into the distance. "But, you know, it's been a long time since I've heard any of them. I miss those stories of his, too, Victor," she said wistfully.
"Ah, maybe I can help with that," he suggested. "Did he ever tell you about the time he..."
"...Stop, stop. Please, Victor ... stop!" Emily cried at last. "Have some pity on a poor dead girl - I don't think that my sides can take much more..."
"So, you see," Victor said. "He hasn't changed all that much."
"In that way, anyhow," she laughed. Then she turned serious "But he's not doing so well these days, is he?"
He sighed. "No. I'm afraid he's losing ground now. I guess that he lived all those years in the hopes of catching up with Barkis and, when that was finished, there was nothing else for him to live for. He's aged at least ten more years in the three I've known him."
"I was afraid of that," she murmured. "I visit him in his dreams, you know - try to encourage him as best I can."
"He's told me about that," Victor said. "And he likes those dreams."
They fell into another silence and walked a long while without talking.
"What's on your mind, Victor?" Emily asked eventually. "It looks like you're deep in thought about something."
He hesitated for a few seconds, and then answered. "I was just thinking about Victoria - I'm sorry..."
"No, it's okay. What about her?" she asked gently.
"I still can't understand why she doesn't want to go back. I thought that she was stronger than..."
"Hold it right there, Mister!" Emily snapped. Victor stopped and - startled - he looked at her. She was glaring back at him with a familiar fiery look.
Uh-oh, he thought, I'm in for it now. What did I say?
"How can you say something like that?" she asked. "Victoria's one of the bravest souls I know! You of all people should know that."
"No. Wait," he said. "It's just that I meant..."
"I know exactly what you meant and ... you're wrong! I wish that I were half as brave as she was..."
"Yes - this coming from the girl who stepped in front of a sword-thrust to save me," he argued.
Emily shook her head. "That didn't take any courage," she said. "I was already dead - what more could he have done to me? But don't you realize what Victoria had to live through while she was alive? And you never knew?"
"It's not a reflection on you, Victor. I know that you would have done anything for her. I know that you loved her. And God help me, you still do." A tear welled up in her eye and rolled down her cheek.
"I'm sorry, Emily. I didn't mean..."
She waved him off. "No, no. You should still love her - you haven't had time to let go of her yet. That's one of the things I love about you, Victor: you understand what loyalty means..."
She paused. "And I'm willing to give you as much time as you need to get over her."
"She deserves that much, Victor. I already feel like I'm stealing you from her all over again. And this time she's somebody that I know and care about. So be careful what you say about her - she did the best she could while she was alive and she was brave enough to do what was truly right for her. And she's dead now - her vows to you are fulfilled and she has no obligation to go back with you. Those ended when she died "
"I suppose," he agreed. "I never thought of it like that. You're right."
"Of course I'm right."
He paused. "There is one thing I've got to say, though."
"What's that?" she said cautiously.
"You're cute when you get angry - especially when you do that glare of yours."
Emily relaxed, and then she laughed. "You're a hopeless man, Victor Van Dort." She took his arm in hers and they continued on their way.
As they walked the landscape began to change. The terrain began to slope upwards, and the ground became increasingly littered with rocks of all sizes. The roughness of the path made it very difficult for Emily, so Victor took the lead to scout out the best path for her.
Victor turned to look back at Emily. She was sprawled face-down on the ground again, with her leg broken off at the knee and the foot jammed into a crevice in the rock a pace or two behind her.
"Are you okay?" he asked with concern. This was the third time in the last ten minutes.
"I hate it when I do that!" she said in annoyance. "This is really starting to bug me..."
He took a good look at the road ahead. "This ground's not going to be getting better any time soon. Maybe I should try carrying you until the path gets easier."
She lifted herself from off the ground and hopped back to where her leg was trapped. It took her a few moments to re-connect the knee joint, and then a few more to tug and pry her foot loose again.
"I don't want to be a burden for you, Victor. I can manage."
"I know you can," he assured her. "But I want to see how well carrying you works as an alternative."
Reluctantly she let him hoist her up onto his back. "How is it?" she asked. "Am I too heavy?"
"Not at all," Victor answered.
He picked his way carefully through the rough ground until at last the obstacles thinned out and then disappeared. Carefully, he let her slide off his back and onto smooth solid ground.
"Thank you, Victor," she said
"No problem," he smiled. "Always glad to help out a damsel in distress. And you weren't heavy at all."
"Well," she commented, "we zombies do tend to be a little on the lightweight side."
Victor's smile disappeared. "Emily!" he scolded her with a frown, "Don't ever call yourself a 'zombie' again. You're not some kind of monster."
"But I do happen to be an animated walking corpse," she said. "What other term would you use?"
"Anything other than that," he muttered.
"How about 'we Barrett girls tend to be a bit on the light side'?" she teased.
"Much better," he said, and then he shook his head and grinned back at her.
They continued to walk and, at a couple of the rougher points, he took her hand to help her keep her footing. After the last one he kept holding onto her hand, and she turned and smiled affectionately at him.
As they walked, the ground started to rise and the air got noticeably cooler. Victor had been dressed only for warm weather and he commented on the change.
"It's a good thing that we - um ... Barrett girls - don't feel the cold at all," Emily joked.
"Watch it," Victor warned.
She brought her bony other hand up to her mouth and giggled.
As the journey wore on, the ground continued to rise and the temperature dropped still more. Victor started to shiver.
Eventually, as the day drew to a close and they came to one of the few groves of cedar trees still lining the path, Victor suggested that it might be a good place to stop and spend the night. Emily agreed: she had had enough of travelling for one day, too...
They broke off a few cedar boughs to place on the ground for Victor's bed, and then he spread his cloak on top.
As the last of the light failed, Victor made himself as comfortable as he could on the cloak while Emily propped herself up against the nearest cedar tree and shut her eyes to rest.
The night turned cold and Victor shivered even more. He had brought only the cloak, and it was not nearly enough to keep him warm.
Eventually, he became aware of somebody leaning over him.
"Victor," Emily said very softly.
He rolled over. "Yes?"
"I can see you shivering - are you going to be able to sleep at all?"
He didn't think so; it was too cold.
"I have a suggestion, if you don't think it improper."
"What's that?" Victor asked.
"I won't be able to contribute any heat, but I'm not bothered by the cold, either. Perhaps if I lie up close to you my body could shelter you from the worst of it."
"Victor," she said. "Don't be a prude. I know you're a perfect gentleman and, for my part, I'll try very hard not to bite..."
"Well," he smiled wearily, "with an offer like that, how can I refuse?"
"Good," Emily replied, and then she made her way carefully over to where Victor was laying and settled down on the cloak behind him.
"How does that feel?" Emily asked him.
"Like I'm being cuddled by the world's softest sack of potatoes," he answered.
She giggled. "I'll take that as a compliment."
Emily's idea turned out to be a very good one. As she had hoped, the insulating effect of her body allowed him to retain his own heat and before too long he quit shivering. Shortly after that, he fell asleep.
"Sweet dreams, darling," she murmured softly to him and then she closed her own eyes...
When Victor woke up the next morning, he was warm and comfortable. The corpse girl was still cuddling him and her good arm was draped around him. Her hand was pressed to his chest and, as he wakened, he became aware that he was clasping the long cool fingers in his own. He smiled.
"Good morning, Victor," Emily purred softly behind him. "How did you sleep?"
Victor gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. "Thanks to you, very, very well. And you?"
Emily sighed. "One of the few advantages of being dead is that I don't really need to sleep."
"So what did you do all night?" he asked.
She bent forward and kissed the back of his neck. "Mostly, I listened to you breathe." She patted his chest. "And I felt your heart beat."
Behind him, Victor heard a quiet sniffle. "It's the most beautiful thing you can imagine," she softly said.
He couldn't think of a good answer, so he said nothing and squeezed her hand...
After a couple more lazy minutes Emily patted his chest again and then she withdrew her arm. "Hey, c'mon, sleepyhead," she said to him. "It's time to get moving."
Victor sighed. "If you insist," he said. "But I was just getting comfortable."
She giggled. "You've been holding my hand almost all night. I'd say you've been comfortable long enough."
Victor laughed. Then he thought of something and the smile left his face. "How's the amulet look this morning?" he asked her.
Emily rolled away from him and got up, and then she reached into the top of her dress and fished out the silver trinket. They looked at the stone together and gasped: its hue was a deep, deep blood red - nearly wine colored.
"Oh, no," Victor said. "We don't have much time. Well, one quick errand for me and we can be on our way. Just wait here and I'll be back in a minute..."